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It’s Complicated: Honoring My Father

‘While he might not be my halakhic parent, he is still halakhically my parent’

by
Shoshana Ne'orah Rishon
June 17, 2015
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Shutterstock
Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Happy Father’s Day.

What does that phrase mean when you grew up in a family where Father’s Day was a big deal—with cards, presents, and a whole display waiting at the placemat of the celebrated—but you don’t even like your dad?

What does it mean when—despite your father’s hopes being raised by you attending a Catholic university and seriously dating a Catholic guy while there—Mom’s Jewishness won out, even if, when you think about, I approach my Judaism with the devotion and dedication that I learned from him in his approach to Catholicism.

What does it mean when your name on your ketubah reads “bat Shlomo Eliyahu haLevi,” for your maternal grandfather, because your non-Jewish dad isn’t—nay, can’t be—acknowledged formally in ritual life events? Since he’s not even your halakhic father according to traditional Jewish law, what does it mean for Kibbud Av v’Em, the law that says you must honor your father and mother? What does it mean when everybody says, “You’re just like him”, when you really see things from such different angles, and everything that should be “us” or “we” is in actuality just two people butting heads.

If you had told six year old me that I would ever wonder about any of this, I would’ve called nonsense.

Because my daddy was magical. We went to church together almost every Sunday, followed by a trip for doughnuts then on to the home improvement store right afterwards. I was Daddy’s little girl. I “helped” him build the backyard fence, we said bedtime prayers together every other night, and when he got home from work, I would fly down the stairs to the entryway of our split-level home for him to catch me in his arms. I couldn’t wait for his short climb to say hello. His tummy was my pillow, and each time he announced he was going on a diet, I fought tooth and nail for him to keep my pillow so I could snuggle on it. I helped him rake leaves and shovel snow, and he always performed magic on the rake and shovel when I got tired, to make it lighter and the handle longer or shorter as needed—and it always worked.

Until the magic wore off. Until all that united my father and I was our stubbornness and pride, and we spent my teenage years butting heads and not understanding each other at all. Until all that was left was our Blackness, which I’d told him in preschool I hated him for giving me; and he never took the time to teach me what it meant to him or to us. He just took me to his mom’s for my grandma, aunt, and cousin to do it for him. Until all that was left was our ADD, and I had no patience for conversations with someone who rambled on about things I wasn’t interested in. Until all we had left was our shared level of religious devotion—to different religions.

See, my family is interracial and interreligious. My mom is a white Ashkenazi Reform Jew, and my dad is a Black man from a Southern Baptist/Catholic mix. He chose to go the way of his own father; Catholic. My dad is very Catholic. Church-every-Sunday-rain-or-shine-sickness-or-health Catholic. Palms-shaped-into-a-cross-hanging-off-his-rearview-mirror-from-Palm-Sunday-past-Easter Catholic. Almost-joined-the-priesthood Catholic.

So what is the me I am now—Torah observant, no longer living at home—meant to do for this man who I went from giving yearly homemade cards and ties to, to completely ignoring, to figuring out what relationship I want now that I want my daughter to have her grandfather? Does the law I cling so tightly to say I do in fact have an obligation?

The answer is yes. While he might not be my halakhic parent, he is still halakhically my parent. The commandment of honoring your parents still applies. The code of Jewish law known as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch discusses the importance of honoring biological or adoptive parents regardless of their Jewish status because the nations of the world correctly view it as important, and therefore to not do so in the name of Jewishness would be a desecration of G-d’s name (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 143:22).

So what’s this Jew to do? I think I’m too old for my own handmade card, but he’ll be getting one from my daughter. Cufflinks? Socks? For all that we’ve been through, that seems so lackluster. A guide to parenting an adult child with a vastly different religious lifestyle? I’ll have to write that book first. Maybe we’ll just have to manage a visit, a hug, and a picture with the baby. After all, you can’t get to Grandfather without first being Father.

So Daddy, Happy Father’s Day.

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Shoshana Ne’ora Rishon, the daughter of a German Jewish mother and Black Catholic father, is a biracial advocate, interracial & inter-religious family adviser, and general race conversationalist. She blogs, speaks publicly, and runs classes for interracial families on socio-racial identity development. She (reluctantly) lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

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